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Rolling the dice

The NDP still lead in the polls, but it hasn’t been a good first week. How did they put themselves in this position?
Apparently very unstable. (BC NDP/wikicommons)

Despite John Horgan saying as recently as last Friday he “still hadn’t decided” whether to force it, the evidence is clear: the NDP has been gearing up for an election for weeks, if not months.

You could point to a dozen things.

Little items, like Melanie Mark getting emotional in July budget estimates, saying they could be her last as minister. Or the shifting general tone of NDP Twitter, a more reliable barometer of HQ’s thinking than in other parties. Or twin six-figure consulting gigs for two former NDP MPs widely rumoured to be interested in provincial runs – who just happen to be confirmed candidates today. Or the oddly ham-fisted effort to turn the $1.5 billion pandemic relief plan into a How I Spent My First Three Years election platform.

Those all got noticed. But if you want a smoking gun, a huge NDP social media advertising surge immediately before the writ dropped is awfully glaring. And smoky.

From the NDP’s point of view, the calculus probably looked like this: there's a year remaining in the mandate. On a number of key files, chances are decent that things may look worse next fall: the pandemic, recession, overdose epidemic, homeless encampments, and crime waves in the province’s two largest centres.

If the NDP had its way, I suspect this election would have happened last month.

Remember August? Despite nagging outbreaks from long weekend partiers, COVID-19 cases were still comparatively low. Go back and look at the tenor and tone of pandemic comment and coverage. British Columbians still took pride in flattening the curve, so much so that some already worried a rush of BC exceptionalism was creating a sense of immunity.

School had not yet re-opened, and the BCTF had not yet loudly objected, much less involved the Labour Relations Board. The opposition parties were cooperating, happy to present a united front on COVID response, and otherwise struggled to attract much attention. Hell, the Canucks were still playing.

And more than anything else, polls. Arguably Canada’s most popular provincial leader at the time, Horgan enjoyed a pull-together COVID boost, but also had built a solid brand as Premier Neighbourhood Dad: straight-shooting, quirky, and trustworthy.

This was the NDP’s greatest asset. But over the past week, they keep undermining it.

It started with the election call itself. I’ve written about this before, but there’s a chasm between the general understanding of the reason for an early election (the NDP think they can win), and the official reasons. The NDP took their greatest asset – a trusted leader – and started the campaign by making him repeat something nobody believes.

Too smart not to have expected any backlash, some sources say the NDP anticipated a two-day story; ride it out, and eventually attention would turn to the campaign.

It's not bad advice - minus one key thing.

The NDP needed a plausible reason to force the election – a sole, simple, something, repeated ad nauseam. But on every day so far, Horgan has given slightly different reasons: CASA was actually very unstable – who you gonna believe: me; or your lying eyes? Or was it that the Greens introduced (gasp) bill amendments? Okay fine, but they obstructed this bill – or was it that one, or that other one? (Pay no attention to my own ministers praising them.) Or would you believe they’re secretly responsible for thwarting this campaign promise from 2017? No? Well, we still need stability.

Keep giving different answers, reporters will keep asking the same question.

Interestingly, the reasons given mostly revolve around the two-person Green caucus, and its leader of one week, Sonia Furstenau. Organizationally, the Greens are incredibly far behind, with only two confirmed candidates so far. It's entirely possible that’s a big enough handicap for the NDP to risk it. But Furstenau has steadily returned fire, and at least so far, seems to be winning the exchange – mainly because she can point to things like the government’s own news releases.

For their part, the BC Liberals have also started slowly, but the summer struggles to attract attention have vanished – that’s the one advantage of an election campaign.

In August, Horgan, Adrian Dix, and Carole James dominated the news, mostly sympathetically. Now, Horgan shares equal time with Andrew Wilkinson and Furstenau, attacked by both.

No matter what colour your lawn sign is, his gamble looks riskier than it did a week ago.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca